Future is now for Rays’ Jake Odorizzi

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – This was his first day of school, the initial step on a long path, the opening line of a tale yet to be told. Right-hander Jake Odorizzi walked through the Tampa Bay Rays spring training clubhouse Wednesday morning – straight to a corner stall feet from franchise face Evan Longoria – and met his future. For the Kansas City Royal turned Ray, his wait, finally, was over.

“It has been hectic, but it has been a good hectic,” Odorizzi, 22, told FOXSportsFlorida.com about life since he was part of a six-player trade in December. “It’s exciting. I’m just looking forward to getting underway. Once baseball activities start, it feels like you’re more yourself. I’m just waiting to get things going and to feel at home again.”

He was under a new roof at Charlotte Sports Park for the first workout between pitchers and catchers in a week of renewal – 67 days after Royals general manager Dayton Moore wrapped him and outfield prospect Wil Myers in a package shipped from the land of barbecue to the bay. He was part of a riverboat roll of the dice, one some in the Midwest bemoan as burning future riches for a chance to steal a winning Keno ticket now.

Ask Odorizzi about such claims, though, and the soft-spoken Breese, Ill., native morphs into Opie Taylor. It’s humbling to be here, he says; he has noticed that the Rays are hands-on, that they have a sound system responsible for three playoff berths since 2008 and stay true to what has made them a contender.  

But you wonder about what the Royals lost – the consensus minor-league player of the year in Myers and a pitcher in Odorizzi who went 15-5 last season with a 3.03 ERA for Class AA Northwest Arkansas and Class AAA Omaha. You wonder about what the Rays gave up – a workhorse in right-hander James Shields and a valuable reliever in right-hander Wade Davis.

And the unsolved puzzle remains: Will it all be worth it?

“It’s kind of humbling, in a sense, because (Kansas City) needed help now in the rotation,” said Odorizzi, who had a 4.91 ERA in 7.1 innings over two major-league starts last season. “To be wanted by Tampa Bay to be part of the deal – everybody in that deal had to be a part of it to make it happen. So I think everybody in it should be very humbled, excited, appreciated.”

He’s humbled, excited and appreciative to return to baseball. Odorizzi was traded before – the Milwaukee Brewers sent him to Kansas City in December 2010 in a deal that brought Zack Greinke to Miller Park – so he has scoped unfamiliar terrain earlier in his career.   

There’s one lesson gained at his previous stop that he plans to unleash in the coming weeks: meet everybody fast. The approach was on display Wednesday morning, while he made intros and mined advice from veterans who had trickled into the clubhouse. Once names turn to faces, the learning curve becomes less steep.

“This clubhouse is probably not like Kansas City’s,” left-hander Matt Moore said. “There’s a lot of good energy. There’s a lot of fun. I feel like there are very few guys over the age of 30 in here. … He’s going to fit in well with everybody.”

That’s the goal. The baseball issues will be answered in time – Will he begin in the major leagues or Class AAA? How will he work to make his game strong enough to be a consistent major-league starter? – but he’s trying to push through February’s fog first.

The process began well before Wednesday. He has worked out in the region since January, a stretch that allowed him to shake hands and chip away at his block of ice. He went on a boat with some pitchers, and he scored an invite to watch the Super Bowl with teammates at right-hander Alex Cobb’s place in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Small steps. Small gains. All part of a larger goal.

“Just not knowing,” Odorizzi said, when asked about the hardest part of his transition. “The unknown. I’ve always been traded in the offseason, so it hasn’t been like I’ve had to pack my stuff up and say goodbye to my team. You start getting phone calls … and you get here, and you start matching the names with the faces, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve talked to you.’ … Basically, you’re re-drafted. You’re starting over. When people talk with you, they help with the transition very easily.”

Transitions are flashing yellow arrows, of course, and detours can lead to a number of destinations. Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman hopes Odorizzi becomes another success story molded on the Trop’s mound, someone like Moore or Cobb or left-hander David Price who can make a postseason run possible.

Odorizzi will spend the spring working toward that end point in the simplest of ways  – pitch, pitch, pitch and pitch some more, with no thought given to what was lost to gain him. Those close by expect him to do it.

“He’s a smart kid,” Cobb said. “I think he’s got his head on right to where he knows he doesn’t have to put the pressure on himself. As long as you take care of your own job, you’ll be fine. He got traded for a reason. We wanted him. As long as he stays that guy, he’ll be up here, and he’ll be pitching well. I don’t think he has to dwell too much into doing more than he has to.”

Good advice. Remember, each story worth retelling starts somewhere. Wednesday was Odorizzi’s time to make the future now.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.